Escaping the Imaginary of Engaged Arts

“Who would miss you, and why, if you would cease to exist tomorrow?” In years of doing field research with cultural managers, producers, and artists, this is one of my favorite interview questions—it lets me peek into how an organization sees and sets its relations with the social reality that surrounds it. Reactions differ, but the general rule of thumb is that the organizations and individuals who have close relationships with their audiences and who work hard to produce sensitive and relevant work have their answers ready. Others are at pains.

The way they answer is not so much about their size or the marketing budget. Rather, it is based on them having opened up and shared their wealth with the outside world, as well as having gotten to know the people who have been historically excluded, marginalized, and disinterested and shared in their perspective. This is what Teddy Cruz, a critical architect and scholar, has called the “radical proximity,” a notion that not only decidedly opposes the insulation and so-called neutrality of many cultural institutions and artists alike but demands entanglement and responsibility. Of course, insulation is not only haunting the arts and cultural spheres. On a much wider scale, distancing and gating off are seen by many as a way to live our lives away from the troubled world out there. Externalities, consequences, reactions—no time for that, no heart for that. Walls, wires, cages, remote camps, filter bubbles, visas, retreats—come in.

If we are aiming anywhere near democracy, these intellectual, emotional, and material firewalls need to come down. This is why, instead of closing ourselves off, getting closer is what we need. And if we talk about publicly funded cultural institutions, radical proximity is not just an ethical stand, but a moral obligation.

However, there are many ways of getting closer—and this is where true ideological struggles begin, at the same time as they are being obscured by the veil of normalcy. The ultra-right and the ultra-left, along with a range of centrists, would all call for engaged citizens and artistic organizations. The key question is what is the activation good for? To what cause does it serve?

One increasingly dominant strand of arts engagement thinking is what we could call a neoliberal activation. At the foundation of it is the belief that communities are on their own, left by the inevitability of budget cuts and austerities to try and fix their own lives the best they can. To their aid, the arts should come. Arts organizations should turn into social hubs whose aim is to support communities and wider societies in rekindling their own local economies and finding patches to the broken health and education systems. Creativity, as an innate power to make something out of nothing, should help people become self-employed and find their place in the competing global marketplace.

Issues that produce social, economic, and moral deprivations cannot be “solved” by arts, creative industries, or whatever we come to call them next. They should and can be solved with meaningful social and economic measures.

three actors on stage behind a clock

Kalider's production of The Money by Seth Honnor. Photo by Steve Tanner.

There is some attractiveness to this image, however it is deeply problematic. First, arts and culture are increasingly seen as a cleansing solution. Don’t worry about that bloody stain, that social divide, that urban deprivation—just throw in a brand-new arts centre and your social fabric will be as good as new! There’s the idea that while greedy forces are tearing our societies and ecosystems apart, arts, culture, and education should glue the pieces back together into a cohesive, well-behaved whole—there is nothing we can do to stop the big boys from taking what they wish for, so let’s just minimize the damage.

This is not only morally problematic, but unreal. Issues that produce social, economic, and moral deprivations cannot be “solved” by arts, creative industries, or whatever we come to call them next. They should and can be solved with meaningful social and economic measures. The best arts and culture can do, in this respect, is to mask social-economic inequalities by having people from diverse backgrounds participate in local cultural life. If we accept that game, we are not alleviating troubles, but relieving responsibilities.

Second, in talking about theatre as democratic practice and institution, we have to find place for dissent and revolt. Democracy is built and defended through collaboration, solidarity, and compassion—but without diversity and disagreement, it is not democracy. Social cohesion is often a euphemism for pacification. At the same time, this does not mean a critical distance, but a critical nearness. Only through free and deep rethinking of the current status quo can we reach new ways of living our lives, treating our environment, and governing our common resources. As places for joint deliberation, experience, and imagination, arts organizations are very fitting for that role.

Finally, we should be very cautious not to equate engagement with a particular kind of activation of individuals and groups—an activation that aims to turn people into desirable market subjects, be it entrepreneurial, efficient, creative, etc. In other words: we should be wary of activations that engage people in the way that is useful for the elites within the scope of the neoliberal social and economic development. There are all sorts of ways to be emancipated and empowered without being productive, in theatre and outside of it. To stretch this argument even further, theatre practice has for some time now been hostage to an idea that emancipation in theatre has to come together with the productive, moving bodies of audiences. We need to let go of the idea that spectatorship and passivity is necessarily bad.

As French philosopher Jacque Rancière writes in Artforum International, “the spectator is active, as the student or the scientist: he observes, he selects, compares, interprets.” But, more importantly, the idea of active artists, and audiences who are to be activated by them, is the perfect “allegory of inequality.” It creates problematic hierarchies that can easily stretch to become a way to understand, for example, unemployed as morally inadequate. And this problem of being activated by someone is fascinatingly expressed by many participatory theatre practitioners as well. At a recent theatrical gathering in Munich, organized by IETM, an international network for contemporary performing arts, one session was dealing with the issue of participatory arts. During the discussion, several participants admitted that they live in fear of being approached by an actor during a play. Why do we then think the idea of others being approached and activated is a good one?

We need to let go of the idea that spectatorship and passivity is necessarily bad.

As Cruz mentions in the book Living as Form, artists and arts organizations are “responsible for imagining … political and economic structures that can produce new modes of social encounters.” But if our imagination stretches as far as the dominant imagination, then we can’t expect to contribute to any kind of meaningful change. We are only reinforcing the status quo in which employability, efficiency, and profitability reign. This simplification is what British cultural policy scholars Eleonora Belfiore and Oliver Bennett criticize as a “toolkit approach” to arts and culture, which is so adored by the majority of policymakers. It involves a series of simplistic calculations that try to capture what the main contribution and meaning of arts is, by looking through a very narrow keyhole that fits only one key. There is a palpable danger that our imagination of what arts engagement (and engaged arts institutions) could be will atrophy. As Claire Bishop argues in Living as Form, art “is as uncertain and precarious as democracy itself; neither are legitimated in advance but need continually to be performed and tested in every specific context.”

What if a truly radical theatre is one in which audiences can be silent, idle, even bored while being at the same time empowered? Or one in which spectators can be annoyed, angry, or deeply provoked without getting on stage? Or where audience members feel utterly lonely and isolated despite sitting along their family? If we limit ourselves to only a handful of approaches that will spark smiles on the faces of the current ruling elites, we won’t live to see the political, social, and ecological change we hope for.

Let us turn to history here. When Enlightenment period philosophes imagined a perfect theatre, they imagined a silent, seated, well-behaved, purely rational, and detached audience. In the words of the encyclopaedist Marmontel, sedens fit sapientior—a sitting soul becomes wiser. (Isn’t this what today we call passive?) But, more importantly, the perfect theatre was aligned with the needs of the soon-to-be dominant bourgeois class.

A century later, cities were filled with parks, galleries, museums, and theatres that preached a new secular religion of national union and superiority, through what Carol Duncan has called “civilizing rituals.” At the same time, these institutions produced an ideological support and sense of superiority for modern forms of colonization, population control, and capitalist exploitation.

A key mechanism of power in question here is the construction of a hierarchy of social practices and subjects. Those who read philosophy are better than those who read romantic literature. Those who talk or cry in theatre are less valuable than those who are able to keep quiet and look as if thinking hard. Interestingly, it was always white, wealthy males on the good side of the divide. The times have changed and the main problem with audiences is not their activity anymore, but rather their passivity.

In parallel, while capitalists of the eighteenth and nineteenth century worried about the roaring masses inspired by revolt and communist ideas, the troubles of many of today’s capital owners and managers is the passivity and detachment of the workforce. Those are the people who should become activated and entrepreneurial, taking social perils into their hands to fix them. In hindsight, some noble ideas of Enlightenment thinkers played a perfect role in supporting the not-so-noble interests of the ruling classes of the day. Let’s not make that mistake again.

If we limit ourselves to only a handful of approaches that will spark smiles on the faces of the current ruling elites, we won’t live to see the political, social, and ecological change we hope for.

several actors around a table onstage

Kalider's production of The Money by Seth Honnor. Photo by Prudence Upton.

There are myriad ways to be socially and critically engaged as an artist or cultural organization that go beside and beyond activation, employment, and social cohesion. If studies of the social and psychological impacts of the arts teach us anything, it is that the pleasure, inspiration, excitement, learning, knowledge, innovation, delight, and catharsis that possibly come from engagement with arts and culture can come in almost infinite forms. What an individual or a group will take from the encounter is also dependent on the technological, social, political, and emotional setting and moment.

For example, for many audiences of the Cairo-based theatre collective Mahatat, the mere fact that a theatrical event is taking place in the middle of the day in the middle of the street is a sign of freedom, encouragement, and emancipation. As Heba El Cheikh, co-founder of Mahatat, writes:

By organizing artistic interventions in public spaces, not only do we offer an entertaining, fun, and reflective experience to the audience, but we also create a reference, a new collective image and memory about certain art forms that existed in the public sphere that we are restoring from neglect and dust.

When artist Milica Tomić walked the streets of nineties Belgrade with a Kalashnikov in one hand and groceries from a local store in the other, as a sign of growing numbness on violence, that made sense, provoked, and encouraged—without anyone participating, learning a new skill, or feeling loved.

When audiences of Seth Honnor’s play The Money get lost in endless disagreements on how to spend a pot of money they just created, they are not necessarily building friendships, but they are definitely learning a thing or two about politics.

Showing these examples is not to say that whatever we do, someone will take something from it. This is not an “every product has its buyer” situation; it is not a banal excuse of the “anything goes” neoliberal slogan, nor a naïve call for diversity for its own sake. There are many cases in which engagement is dull and the content seems self-sufficient, hermetic, and ahistorical. This is a call to recognize and cherish the diversity of artistic experiences while also becoming much more sensitive to their reception and interaction with the public, and brave enough to reject the tides of fashion.

For people around the world, realities of life are unthinkably diverse and contingent. This diversity should also be reflected in the ways artists and institutions deal with these realities. Art can be all sorts of things, and that elusive characteristic is perhaps the single most amazing thing about it.

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This series is curated by IETM (International network for contemporary performing arts) as the organization gets ready to host its Plenary Meeting in Hull, UK, exploring the reality of inclusion in today’s societies in artistic representation and in the process of creation. These articles, featuring various stances on the topic, are meant to nourish the ongoing debate on the contentious issues of inclusion, diversity, participation, and cultural democracy.

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